Saturday, December 08, 2012

Telecopter inventor John Silva dies at 92

John D. Silva was the chief engineer for KTLA-TV in 1958 when he outfitted a helicopter with a TV camera and changed television news coverage forever.

He turned a rented Bell helicopter into the Telecopter, essentially a flying TV studio. The first of its kind, it put Channel 5 news at the forefront of live aerial coverage of major events like parades, fires, earthquakes and massive freeway snarls.

Hundreds of televised car chases later, Silva's invention is a staple of local television news stations, along with the mobile unit he also had a hand in developing.

Silva, whose two Emmy Awards include one in 1974 for developing the Telecopter, died Nov. 27 in Camarillo of complications of pneumonia, his family said. He was 92.

"John's legacy is of leading the industry to develop new tools. He actually helped define live television in the infancy of this industry," said Dave Cox, KTLA's current chief engineer.

Silva began creating the aerial broadcast studio in strict secrecy, assembling the news chopper in a North Hollywood backyard so other local TV stations wouldn't catch on.

The challenges were great. First, the engineer had to convince KTLA executives to spend $40,000 on broadcast equipment that no one was certain actually worked — no small feat in 1957. Then he had to whittle down 2,000 pounds of television equipment to just 368 pounds so the Bell 47 helicopter could lift off the ground.

On the piston-driven helicopter's maiden flight July 3, 1958, Silva struggled mightily.

During that test flight, his fellow engineers waiting on Mt. Wilson radioed that they were not receiving any video images from the helicopter. Silva knew he would not be able to duplicate the in-flight conditions by trouble-shooting back on the ground. So he asked pilot Larry Scheer to hover at about 1,500 feet as smoothly as he could.

"Larry, I've got to go out there," he told the pilot, adding "I am not going to look down."

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